I meant to review “Amateurs in Eden”, Joanna Hodgkin’s biography of her mother Nancy Meyers, when it was first published back in 2013 or thereabouts. But I couldn’t quite get a handle on it, so the review languished half-written. Like many reviewers, my reaction was generally favourable but ultimately I couldn’t quite see why we needed a whole book about someone whose greatest claims to fame were that she was married for a time to the author Lawrence Durrell, and Henry Miller liked one of her paintings (which, like practically everything else she ever painted, has since been destroyed). I recently had occasion to re-read the book though and I think I have a better sense of why it’s more important than I thought at first. But before I get into that, a little background might not hurt.
I first read Lawrence Durrell’s classic Alexandria Quartet back when I was somewhat younger and more impressionable than I am now. And was fascinated by it, like so many others ever since the four novels in the tetralogy were first published back in the late 50s & early 60s. Not everyone likes the books, mind you – the lush romanticism and highly wrought (shading into over-wrought) prose leave some readers cold. But for me it was a window onto a wider, far more exotic world, a much needed counterpoint to the rather safe, suburban, Canadian existence that was (and remains, thankfully) my day to day reality. For a time, I wanted to live in Durrell’s Aexandria.
But since that world no longer existed (and in fact never existed outside of Durrell’s imagination), I settled for the next best thing: reading as much as I could by and about Durrell and his life and times and the world (the real, historical one) that informed his writing. And as it turned out there was no shortage of material.
One of the conceits of Durrell’s fictional world is that it is full of writers. There is the narrator of the first and last volumes, Darley, an aspiring novelist. And lurking in the background there is the older and more established novelist Pursewarden, offering up his cynical, world-weary aphorisms. There is also Balthazar, the titular character of the second novel who is by profession a doctor, but who writes a novel-length ‘interlinear’ commenting on and correcting the manuscript of the first book, Justine. And speaking of Justine, it turns out an earlier phase of her life was documented in another book by a writer named Arnauti, who never makes an on-stage appearance. And I think there are a couple more writers, like the poet John Keats (no, not that John Keats) but I’ve kind of lost track.
Anyhow, here’s the thing: while it might seem a little strange to have so many writers circling around the same set of characters and events, describing and re-describing them in different ways, in fact this aspect of the Quartet has curious parallels with Durrell’s own life. Or at least an early and significant part of it, specifically the time he spent with Nancy Meyers in Corfu and Paris in the latter half of the 1930s.
The first writer to chronicle the adventures of Lawrence and Nancy was probably Anais Nin in her copious diaries, but her version was one of the later ones to see print as the diaries didn’t find a publisher until the mid-60s. In Nin’s version, Nancy in notable only for her “eloquent silences.” The first published account, in 1941, was Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi, describing Miller’s trip to Greece shortly before the advent of WWII. Lawrence and Nancy have a couple of walk-on parts in that one. Next up was Durrell’s own Prospero’s Cell, a nostalgic and not strictly factual recollection of pre-war life on Corfu. Published in 1945 and written after Lawrence and Nancy had split up, she appears only as “N”, painting “lazy pleasant paintings” (whatever those are), diving for cherries, and buying sailboats. And of course the least literary and by far the best known recounting was My Family and Other Animals, written by Lawrence’s brother Gerald, first published in 1956. Gerald paints a wonderful comedic portrait of Lawrence as a pompous ass, while Nancy has been written out entirely. (According to Hodgkins, Gerald’s version was by far Nancy’s favourite.)
So in all these recountings of the Durrell mythology, when she appears at all Nancy is barely there, a ghostly figure, vaguely drawn. You could say this is because she’s a supporting character, but in fact these books are full of memorable supporting characters, from the shy naturalist Theodore Stephanides to the jocular Spiros Americanos. So what’s up with Nancy?
Hodgkin’s biography sets out to answer that question, and in the process she writes Nancy back into the story. It’s a sad story in many respects, and doesn’t reflect well at all on Lawrence, who comes across as controlling, jealous, and just plain nasty, using his considerable force of personality to keep Nancy out of the limelight, away from his milieu of writers and artists. And this despite the fact she was blowing through a small inheritance bankrolling their whole bohemian idyll. I think ultimately that’s where I’d locate the significance of Hodgkin’s book: like Balthazar’s interlinear, it corrects some basic misconceptions set forth in previous volumes, and opens up another dimension in an already multidimensional story. Nancy really deserves to have her say, even if it is a bit late in the game.
As a bit of an aside, I have to say I also enjoyed the descriptions of Nancy’s art student life in the 1930s, in all its tawdry glamour and desperation. The forms of art may be in constant flux, but there’s something oddly reassuring about the continuities of the art student existence down through the ages.